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Bangladesh Remains Sensitive on the Issue of Connectivity

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 04, 2008

    Though the recent Indo-Bangladesh Foreign Secretary level talks held in New Delhi made significant progress on several issues, there was no forward movement on the issue of connectivity. Bangladesh remains reluctant to extend this facility to India, though bilateral relations have generally been trouble-free in the last two years.

    The two Foreign Secretaries discussed issues of water, trade, investment promotion and terrorism. To resolve the issue of water they have decided to form a technical committee. The issue of cross-border terrorism in which a Bangladesh based terror group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) plays a crucial role is to be taken up during the forthcoming Home Secretary level meeting. The real progress was made in the area of investment promotion, with the two Foreign Secretaries declaring that a Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement (BIPA) was in the final stages.

    However, Bangladesh’s stand on granting India transit rights for goods bound for the North-east remained unchanged. Bangladesh clarified that it was not prepared to give any concessions on this issue. In fact, it once again became a major issue in Bangladesh’s domestic politics, and there prevails near unanimity that India should not be given transit rights. The feverish pitch of this debate probably forced both sides to avoid the word transit during the joint press conference held by the two Foreign Secretaries.

    Bangladeshis are not only reluctant to give transit rights to India but portray it as a possible security threat. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Secretary General Khandaker Delwar Hossain said that he feared military aggression on the country if India were to be granted the right of transit or a corridor, and cited the Polish experience at German hands in the run-up to the Second World War. He advised the caretaker government not to sign a transit accord, as “people would not accept it”. Calling for unity among the people to resist a conspiracy against the nation, Delwar said the country's sovereignty must be protected in the spirit of the Liberation War.

    Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid sought the UN Secretary General's intervention in refraining India from pressing for transit. He alleged that New Delhi was trying to interfere in the internal political affairs of Bangladesh and putting pressure on Dhaka to sign a deal against the country's independence and sovereignty.

    The Bangladeshi media also launched a campaign against transit on the eve of the Foreign Secretary level meeting. They expressed apprehension that a transit agreement will be imposed on Bangladesh against its will and made it clear that giving transit rights to India is not an economic but a political issue. They also pointed out that many things in the sub-continent have not progressed because of politics though sound economics always favoured them, and advised India to keep in view the prevalent political reality in South Asia. Some even accused India of hurting the economic interests of Bangladesh in several ways. They felt that the economic loss to Bangladesh because of not giving transit to India was miniscule by that standard.

    This virulent propaganda against transit forced the Foreign Affairs Adviser Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury to state on the eve of the Foreign Secretary’s meeting that no concession would be given to India. He also stated that the interim government would not take any steps that go against the sovereign national interest of the country.

    Most sections of Bangladeshi polity are privately in favour of giving transit rights to India. For instance, at a recent meeting hosted by US Ambassador in Dhaka James Moriarty, leaders of major political parties, including those from Awami League (AL), BNP and Jatiya Party (JP) reportedly joined the American Ambassador in saying that Bangladesh should give transit rights to neighbouring countries and especially to India. The only exception was the Jamaat leader who proposed giving transits only to Myanmar and Nepal. Interestingly, the same Bangladeshi leaders who had agreed that India should be granted transit in the above meeting later threatened to agitate on this issue in other fora.

    Bangladesh’s refusal to consider India’s request for transit will have serious implications for regional co-operation. This indicates that South Asian countries have still not overcome their mistrust of each other. It also does not augur well for SAARC, where regional connectivity is a critical theme. Without connectivity in the broadest sense the organisation would have little future.